The claim

“Overall in net terms, at the number of clinically trained professionals in the NHS, they are up 8,000 since the start of this government”

Number 10 lobby briefing, on Politics Home, 16 July 2010

The background

A blazing row broke out in the Commons today between the  Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt and his shadow secretary Andy Burnham over the Keogh report into the safety of NHS care.

Mr Hunt was commenting on a report, written by NHS England Medical Director Professor Sir Bruce Keogh, which was commissioned by David Cameron in February after the Francis inquiry into high death rates in Mid-Staffs.

Sir Bruce examined 14 other NHS trusts with high death rates which have paid out a combined £234m in negligence settlements in the past three years.

According to the review all had “inadequate” nursing staff levels.

Mr Burnham criticised the fall in nursing numbers, arguing that “one of the report’s major concerns is that trusts have allowed staffing levels to drop to dangerously low levels”. But Number 10 insists that overall staff numbers are up.

FactCheck dons its rubber gloves.

The analysis

Latest official figures – for February 2013 – show that the overall number of full-time equivalent clinical staff is 564,396 – up from 555,950 in May 2010.

So Number 10 is right to point out that there are 8,446 more clinical staff than there were at the time of the general election.

However, Mr Burnham was criticising the fall in nursing numbers.

Taken at face value, the number of nurses overall has fallen from 310,793 in May 2010 to 308,802 in February this year.

That’s a loss of just 1,991. However, if you strip out midwives, health visitors and school nurses that number more than doubles.

Without those specialist nurses, the number drops from 281,431 to 277,294 – that’s 4,137 fewer nurses.

It’s worth pointing out however, that over the same period the number of doctors has risen by 5,368 to 109,696.

The verdict

Number 10 is right to point out that overall, the number of clinical staff has gone up since the general election. There are 8,446 more “full-time equivalent” staff.

What’s also happened is that the mix has changed. There are 5,368 more doctors and 4,137 fewer nurses.

Mr Burnham argued that the drop in nurse numbers is behind the failings in NHS care.

As FactCheck has said before – without wanting to play down the importance of qualified nurses, essentially Labour is seizing on the only part of the clinical workforce where there has been a significant cut.

Number 10 meanwhile sidesteps the issue by saying that getting the staff mix right is a matter for each NHS Trust.

It told Politics Home: “The mix of staffing for each organisation is rightly one for those organisations”.

By Emma Thelwell